1991 was a remarkable year. The map of Europe was re-drawn, one of the two major protagonists in the Cold War disappeared, and the first signs of future trouble in the post-Cold War order began to appear. As 2021 progresses, an array of 30-year anniversaries are approaching – the start of the Yugoslav wars in June, the failed coup against Gorbachev in August, and the Belavezha Agreement and collapse of the Soviet Union in December.
As one looks today at the countries that once made up the Soviet Union – Russia and its neighbors – our knowledge of how things turned out make it difficult to recall the mixture of hope and foreboding that greeted the Soviet collapse, both inside the USSR and around the world. The demise of the Soviet Union brought independence to fifteen countries, some of which had ardently desire that for decades, but others that were not as eager. The United States, until near the end, supported preservation of the Soviet Union, given the good working relations American leaders had established with Soviet President Gorbachev and the instability generated by the violent break-up of Yugoslavia.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union was accomplished relatively peacefully. The Belavezha Agreement of the Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarussian leaders was accepted without physical resistance by the Soviet legislature, the governments of the republics, and by Gorbachev. Some armed conflicts ensued, provoked by disagreements raised in the separation of the Soviet republics, but these were largely on the periphery and did not affect the bulk of the former Soviet population.
Questions of self-determination and national independence arose simultaneously with movements for political reform in the process that led eventually to the Soviet collapse. This process was complicated – advocates of political reform did not always support separation of national republics from the USSR, and advocates of national independence did not always turn out to be democratic reformers. The transition from one-party states and command economies to multiple pluralist polities with market economies turned out to be difficult, which was expected, but also produced a number of surprises. Thirty years later, it is evident that rejection of the Soviet model did not necessarily produce adoption of Western European or North American models.
The fifteen states that emerged from the USSR today all still share some elements of their common Soviet heritage. However, over the course of thirty years significant differences have emerged among them, arising from their distinct histories, cultures, geopolitical situations, and the choices made by their leaders and societies since the Soviet collapse. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania never considered themselves legitimate parts of the Soviet Union, and have ardently embraced integration with Western Europe. The five states of Central Asia have developed stronger ties with East and South Asia and domestically have developed several varieties of one-party authoritarian rule.
The six states “in-between” – Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia – are most clearly caught today somewhere between Russia and Western Europe. All six are in the EU’s Eastern Partnership, but there are great differences among them in how they participate in the program and relate to the EU. Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine most clearly desire closer relations with the West. Armenia and Azerbaijan are still locked in a war that began in 1988, as the bonds of the Soviet Union were beginning to loosen. Belarus is in its twenty-seventh year of one-man rule, and is condemned by much of the world after the recent forced landing in Minsk of a commercial Ryanair flight.
Russia’s relations with its neighbors constitute today both one of its most important foreign policy priorities but also one of the greatest problems in its relations with Western Europe and the United States. The countries which were part of the USSR remain important for Russia for a number of obvious reasons. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union Russia has asserted a special relationship, special interests, and special rights in these countries. Once it became reconciled to the disappearance of the USSR, the United States has been among the most vocal of the western countries that support the full independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of the post-Soviet states. Over time the US and the EU became more active and increased their presence in many of these states, which has produced friction and collisions with Russia.
Belarus and Ukraine provide two of the clearest and most important examples of how domestic development has differed among post-Soviet states, and how these developments have become issues of deep controversy between Russia on the one hand and the EU and US on the other. Sentiment for democratic reform was strong in Minsk in the last years of the USSR, and Belarus was a leader in dissolving the Soviet Union. However, Aleksandr Lukashenko won a decisive victory in the presidential elections of 1994, and rapidly consolidated his authority in a one-party, one-man regime. Lukashenko has been repeatedly criticized by western governments for rigging elections, and repressing his political opponents and critics. Lukashenko and Belarus have repeatedly been subjected to western sanctions, interrupted by periods of thawing relations.
During President Yeltsin’s second term Russia and Belarus agreed to form a “union state,” an ambition that has been neither realized nor abandoned for over two decades. During Putin’s first two presidential terms, reports circulated in the West that Moscow was not keen on following through on a union with Minsk, due to the unreformed and unhealthy state of the Belarus economy. While generally close to Moscow, Minsk showed some independence after 2014 by avoiding explicit recognition of Crimea as part of Russia and by serving as the venue for talks on the Donbas conflict. At present Belarus remains a close ally of Russia, judged by Moscow as crucial to its security. The US and EU lament Belarus’s continuing authoritarian regime, and call Lukashenko “Europe’s last dictator.”
The history of Ukraine’s relations with Russia and the West since independence is even more complex. From the beginning nuclear weapons, Crimea, and the Black Sea fleet were difficult issues. Western assistance and assurances from the US, UK, and Russia convinced Kiev to relinquish the nuclear arms and delivery systems on its territory. However, relations between Moscow and Kiev remained volatile, and it was only in early 1997 that agreement was reached on a fifteen-year lease in Sevastopol for the Black Sea fleet. Even that agreement did not fully end Russian discontent with Ukraine’s development of closer relations, especially in the military, with western countries.
There were disagreements between Russia and Ukraine over Crimea even before the dissolution of Soviet Union. Crimea was granted autonomous status by Ukrainian authorities in February, 1991, and only 54 per cent of the peninsula’s population voted for Ukrainian independence in the December 1, 1991 referendum. Once Ukraine became independent, growing discontent in Crimea prompted OSCE-led negotiations between Kiev and local authorities which resulted in an agreement on autonomy in late 1998. With this, many outside observers considered the Crimea question to be resolved. In fact, Ukrainian officials even touted the agreement as a model for international officials (such as myself) working on other protracted conflicts. As we know now, the issue was not settled.
Domestic politics in Ukraine also became an issue in its relations with Russia, and Russia’s relations with the West. The first “maidan” in 2004 – the so-called “orange revolution” which reversed the suspect electoral victory of Viktor Yanukovych over Viktor Yushchenko – received strong support from western NGOs and western governments. Russia in the end accepted the repeat election which chose Yushchenko, but Moscow’s expressed suspicion and bitterness over such “color revolutions” has grown sharply over a decade and a half.
The second “maidan” began with protests in November 2013 over President Yanukovych’s decision to postpone signature of an Association Agreement with the EU, reportedly after consultations in Moscow. The 2013-2014 maidan protests, however, soon evolved into violent clashes, which Ukraine had avoided in the 2004 protests. To this day the EU and the US profess diametrically opposite views from Russia on the events that prompted President Yanukovych’s flight in February 2014 and replacement, first by a provisional government and then a new president and parliament. Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of war in Donbas have only deepened and hardened the divisions between Russia and the major western powers. Russia’s relations with Ukraine under both President Poroshenko and President Zelenskii have been difficult, at best, to hostile.
No one envisioned these outcomes – in Belarus and Ukraine, and in Russia’s relations with its neighbors and the West – when the Soviet Union collapsed thirty years ago. The hope was prevalent with the end of the Cold War for a Europe “whole and free, from Vancouver to Vladivostok.” What we got instead was a result in Belarus which dashed the hopes and expectations of the West, while the evolution in Ukraine is not at all what Russia anticipated or desired. In addition, the region as a whole remains one of the most serious sources of tension between Russia and some of its most important international interlocutors.
These outcomes were not what anyone desired when the Russian tricolor was raised over the Kremlin on December 25, 1991. As we observe this and other anniversaries that are coming in the remainder of 2021, it is worth considering not only why our hopes then were not realized, but how we all can do better in the next thirty years.